Low Prices and Low Expectations

I’m not sure if you heard, but an early leader in consumer electronics megastores is trying to make a comeback. Before I even begin, I want you to keep this playing in the background as you read my column. It sets the mood, and it features a man juggling VHS tapes. What more do you need? 

Circuit City, which filed for bankruptcy in 2008 after being neck-and-neck with Best Buy for several years, will be opening a store in Dallas, Texas under new ownership. I never imagined that Circuit City would return before RadioShack finally bit the dust, but it is what it is (and I’ve picked up more odds and ends from “The Shack” over the years than I have from Amazon or Best Buy, which is mainly due to the feeling that if I were to stop going, they’d finally lock their cabinets of HDMI cords and headphone splitters for good).  

Anyways, it looks like they’ll be targeting “millennials” as they look to open 50 to 100 stores by the end of the year, so you can expect to find selfie sticks, GoPro drones, Chromecasts, and wafer-thin laptops. Ronny Shmoel, the CEO of the “new” Circuit City, gave an interview with Twice explaining the reasoning behind the company’s return, including an ambitious plan to open over 5,000 express locations around the country. He also decided that it was appropriate to say, “I buy 90% of my purchases online, however, I still like to go into a store every now and then and touch something or feel something.” Maybe I’m in the wrong here, but I feel like this is the exact same situation that Best Buy is in. I go into the store, I see what I like, I look up the price online, and if it’s cheaper on Amazon and Best Buy can’t price-match it, I walk out. Even if they can price-match the product, the deal is often limited to particular colors and models that I’m not interested in. How Mr. Shmoel is going to combat this type of consumer behavior is still up in the air.  

Regardless, to celebrate the occasion I’ve decided to travel back in time through commercials and online catalogues to an era when the only piece of technology I owned was the Nintendo 64 bundle I received on my birthday in 1996. We’ll look at old brands, dated trends, and products that may have been a bit ahead of their time. The Circuit City of 2016 may be targeting millennials this time around, but these are the products that were geared towards a very different demographic.  

I have no idea how a modern Circuit City is supposed to compete with the one thing that’s been kicking Best Buy’s butt for about a decade: online sales. If it were up to me, I’d rebrand both stores and just call them “Amazon Showrooms.”

First stop on this nostalgia trip is a commercial for Circuit City from the 1990s. I think this was the era when electronic products began to shed their wood veneers in order to fully embrace the black and gray materials we still see today. I’d say it’s a shame, but fake (and real) wood doesn’t really go with modern fashion and architectural trends. Sure, you may have a rustic living room with wicker chairs and oak furniture, but many have gotten rid of their wooden television stands, cabinets, and whatnot. The TV may still function as the focal point in living rooms, but ultra-slim screens with bezels that are almost nonexistent are now mounted on walls and above fireplaces, like digital paintings.  

That’s not to say that wood has completely disappeared in the electronics world. In an interesting article from Fast Company, the author argues that “the blending of wood with technology hasn’t gone away; it’s just become niche.” Things that go out-of-style often see a revival among those who seek to identify with cultural objects from the past, those who are trying to spark renewed interest in a fad that should have never disappeared in the first place, and those who are just trying to be cool (I’m not judging). John Tolman, the founder of a company that makes wooden cases for iPhones, claims that “if wood gets scratched or stained, it’s part of its character. Wood gets worn just by the oils in your hands. If wood scuffs or dings, it gains a story. That’s both part of wood’s charm, and why many people don’t like it, especially in electronics. They don’t want to admit their gadgets will one day be antiques. They want it to be futuristic forever.”  

The change in materials can also be somewhat of a spiritual shift. Dave Laituri, the founder of a company that specializes in audio equipment made from wood, recognizes that “wood has a history. Every piece is different, every piece was once alive. There is an emotional impact there that is profound. There’s nothing that you can do with plastic to make it an emotional thing; but wood helps us connect to our devices.” I’m not sure if I agree on the point about plastic, but it’s an interesting take nonetheless.  

One other thing I want to mention. At the end of the commercial, beneath the (awesome) animation of the Circuit City plug sliding into the socket, there’s a slogan that says, “Where Service is State of the Art.” I can’t help but compare this to Best Buy’s line on their website, “Expert Service, Unbeatable Price.” The only reason why Best Buy is able to use that second line is because they price match all of the prices that are already beating their own, and I have no idea how a modern Circuit City is supposed to compete with the one thing that’s been kicking Best Buy’s butt for about a decade: online sales. If it were up to me, I’d rebrand both stores and just call them “Amazon Showrooms.”  

Moving on.  

Here’s a second Circuit City commercial from the 90s, this one focusing on their price-match guarantee. It features a terrible father ordering his son to walk ten miles to the local electronics store instead of getting off his butt and driving him in his Chrysler Cirrus LXi. This commercial has everything:  

–A boy free to roam the neighborhood before modern parenting took over and “stranger danger” began to control whether or not kids could leave their backyards on their own, 

–A boy distracted by girls, 

–A boy who’s able to get meaningful exercise instead of sitting at home playing Super Mario Bros (and he’s apparently entertained by bouncy balls), 

–A boy who has permission to cross a busy freeway on foot,  

–A Circuit City employee who looks like he belongs on Law & Order and who thinks it’s appropriate to respond to customers with a grunt, 

–A Circuit City employee who is able to take one look at a kid and his Walkman, lean back, grab a wad of cash off the counter, and hand it down to the kid in one swift motion, 

–A Circuit City employee whose only verbal interaction with a customer is “that’s it” and the aforementioned grunt, and 

–An electronics store that serves as a literal outlet for the biggest plug on the planet. 

It’s amazing what you can glean from a 30-second TV spot. I’m assuming they made this to show that their price-match guarantee is so easy that “even a kid can do it,” but I was too busy playing with my own personal bouncy ball to pay much attention to the commercial. 

Finally, I managed to find a number of pages from a 1996 Circuit City catalogue that include a few brands I’d completely forgotten about (especially since I’m only 24 years old). Wikipedia to the rescue! 

Packard Bell: Herbert “Herb” A. Bell and Leon S. Packard founded the company in 1933, it pretty much ceased to exist in North America in 2000, and it was acquired by Acer in 2008. They manufactured unique “superheterodyne” radios, which sound awesome.  

NEC: “Nippon Electric Company” was founded in Japan in 1899, and it was the biggest PC server manufacturer in Japan in 2013. Their early success was due to their involvement in the rapid expansion of Japan’s telephone subscribers. They also made a lot of boring beige-colored electronics in later years.  

Fisher: Formed in 1937, it was sold to Emerson Electric Company in 1969. Then it was sold to Sanyo Electric in 1975, which was subsequently purchased by Panasonic in 2010. Fisher was eliminated in 2012 when Sanyo was eliminated by Panasonic. Business is a lot like Game of Thrones, sometimes.  

Zenith: I actually knew a bit about this company because their logo caught my eye a while back. It was founded in 1918 by two guys in Chicago as a small producer of amateur radio equipment. Their company name came from “ZN’th,” a contraction of its founders’ ham radio call sign, 9ZN. They filed for bankruptcy in 1999, and LG and Motorola each took pieces of the company (LG still produces Zenith digital television converter boxes and a few Zenith-branded televisions). Zenith invented subscription television, the modern remote control, and the first HDTV in North America. And I’ll say it again, their logo was awesome. Looked like something in a comic book.  

ProScan: Nothing interesting to say. Looks like it’s a brand under a French company called Technicolor SA, and there are still some ProScan products being sold. Their tagline is, “So advanced, yet so simple.”  

GoldStar: Ooh, this one is cool. It was a Korean electronics company founded in 1958, and after a series of mergers with companies like LG Cable, LG Electronics, Lucky Chemical, and LS Cable & System, the Lucky Goldstar Corporation was born. To compete in Western markets, it was renamed “LG,” short for “Lucky Goldstar.” The “Life’s Good” slogan was also adopted for the Western market.   

There are other companies I tend to forget about—Quasar, Hitachi, RCA, Action, Broksonic, Onkyo, Aiwa—but this is mainly due to the few big brands that dominate store shelves nowadays.

At the end of the day, I’m not sure why I’d pick Circuit City over Best Buy if I needed something last-minute. There really isn’t much you can do to drastically shake up that category of stores unless Circuit City is able to bring in knowledgable employees and provide excellent customer service. You know, the kinds of things they used to advertise. I like to get help from people that are more knowledgable than I am with regards to particular products, but if they’re just sharing the same information that I can read on the back of the box, there’s no point. In fact, I’d say that customer service is the main factor that determines whether or not I will continue to shop at a particular company (Warby Parker has recently earned my respect, in that regard).

I don’t think that Circuit City will be able to achieve the lofty goals they set in place, but I’m a firm believer in healthy competition between companies because at the end of the day, the consumer wins. However, whether or not they can enter particular markets that are already being dominated by Best Buy and Target/Walmart is a different issue altogether.

In case they succeed, though, I’ll go ahead and predict another unexpected comeback. You’ve heard it here first, folks. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *